What’s In My Kitchen Pantry
If someone asked me what I would take from my pantry if I knew I was going to be shipwrecked, I would probably answer just 3 things: sea salt, Espelette pepper, and herbes de Provence. Well, 4, if you include a glass of wine, which I personally consider central to French living and almost as important as any of the seasonings I listed above. For me, those three things are indispensable for everyday French home cooking. Though if my wife overheard this, she would promptly burst out laughing before opening my cabinets and exposing all my lies.
Pantries are easily filled with items you only use for one recipe before relegating them to the back corners of your cabinet. So, I will start with the basics and provide hints where you could keep going if you were so inclined.
Let’s begin with the basic seasonings.
The Holy Trinity of Salts
At home, I use 3 different kinds of sea salt, each with a specific purpose.
La Baleine brand fine sea salt comes from the Mediterranean, and you will find it in every single French home. This is our everyday, all-purpose salt. Think of it as the Morton salt of France. It’s a naturally white sea salt dried using only the power of the sun and wind. It has a fantastic clean flavor that won’t overpower subtle flavors.
Fleur de sel (flower of salt) is made by evaporating seawater, then hand-harvesting the large crystals that float to the surface. It’s a crunchy finishing salt that I love to sprinkle over grilled steaks or lamb chops at the last minute. Try using it with caramelized sweets and even chocolate mousse.
Sel gris (gray salt) is a damp, mineral-rich, coarse sea salt from the famed Guérande region of France. Whereas fleur de sel is harvested off the top, sel gris is found in the bottom of the evaporation pits. It is a perfect salt for making duck confit and dishes that need to cook longer.
Herbs and Spices
I remember the small window herb box that surprisingly survived the brutally harsh Chicago winters in my mother’s warm and cozy kitchen. It provided a burst of bright, fresh flavor to all the French dishes that we cooked at home.
We grew copious quantities of thyme, tarragon, parsley, chives, and rosemary. And in the summertime, we added basil to our garden mix. As you explore the following recipes, you undoubtedly will see the practicality of having your own kitchen herb box.
Espelette pepper is a mildly hot chile pepper that is dried, then ground into a powder. Its characteristic smoky-sweet flavor adds the perfect balance of mild heat to any dish. It has largely replaced black pepper in my kitchen and is essential for Basque dishes like pipérade and Basque chicken.
Though traditionally from the Basque region, Espelette can now be found growing all over the world. One of my favorite producers, Piment d’Ville, grows over 10 percent of the world’s production in Boonville, California, and can easily be found online. You can substitute sweet paprika for Espelette pepper, but I recommend adding this flavorful pepper to your pantry. You’ll be glad you did.
Herbes de Provence is a highly useful dried herb blend that usually includes savory, fennel, rosemary, marjoram, oregano, tarragon, and thyme. For some strange reason, most American versions add lavender. It’s probably because most people associate Provence with the vast lavender fields of the Valensole plateau.
Bouquet garni is a bundle of fragrant herbs tied together with a string and used to flavor stocks, soups, and most braises. Tie a sprig of thyme, fresh parsley, and a bay leaf together and, voilà, you just made your first bouquet garni. Feel free to add any herbs that you are growing in your own garden or that you are particularly fond of. I love both summer and winter savory and tend to use one of them as much as I do thyme in a bouquet garni.
My go-to spices are nutmeg for creamy potato gratin and an incredible French-style macaroni and cheese gratin; star anise and stick cinnamon for bastions of home cooking like lentil salad and the quintessential Sunday lunch pot-au-feu; indispensable saffron for the bouillabaisse. Finally, white and black pepper. French chefs are very opinionated about which pepper they prefer. I use both.
The 3 Fats of France
The American journalist Waverley Root wrote an interesting book entitled, The Foods of France. In it, he argued that French food could be divided into sections based principally upon the fat they cooked with: butter, oil, or lard (animal fat).
Largely, I would have to agree that all are very central to the regional cuisines they represent. Though I would caution the overeager reader that while this may be true, not one single relative of mine has them all. In fact, most just use one single fat.
Animal fats like duck and goose fat and pork lard are irreplaceable in French country cooking. It is hard to imagine the cooking of Southwest France with its hearty cassoulet, duck confit, and pork rillettes without it.
As you build your French pantry, I would suggest making what I call a “super fat.” All year long, I save rendered pork and duck fat in quart-sized containers in my freezer. Each time I cook my Crispy Duck Confit, I strain the remaining fat and refreeze it. The flavor keeps getting more intense and makes everything cooked in it more delicious. I have had my current batch of super fat for 5 years.
Butter is, by far, the fat most commonly associated with the French. French butter is golden-hued and contains far less water than typical American butter. Do yourself a favor and invest in a grass-fed French or Irish butter. It may cost a bit more, but the flavor and texture are vastly superior to what we all grew up with. It is perfect for everything from nibbling on crunchy radishes dipped in fleur de sel to quick pan sauces. I only use unsalted butter and will add fleur de sel by hand if I need salted butter.
I have noticed that, during the summer months, the amount of animal fat and butter I use considerably decreases, while my consumption of olive oil increases. I like to joke that my stomach goes to Provence every summer, where the cooking style is much more vegetable-based and simple grilled meats and fish rule the table.
As a self-proclaimed olive oil addict, I can tell you with no uncertainty that I usually have 5 or 6 different extra-virgin olive oils with flavor profiles ranging from tropical bananas to sharper, more peppery notes. I also have a less expensive every day cooking olive oil on hand.
Tucked away in the far reaches of my pantry is a bottle of walnut oil; I only use it in certain salads like my blue cheese, toasted walnut, and endive salad, but life would be incomplete without it.
If you only own one kind of vinegar, it should be a real red wine vinegar; I use a considerable amount of it for my daily simple green salad. If you want a larger vinegar selection, I would suggest adding tarragon vinegar, a necessary component of a rich bearnaise sauce (tarragon flavored hollandaise), and a welcome splash to my favorite chicken with tarragon and mustard recipe. I use sherry vinegar sparingly and the occasional splash of older balsamic on salads.
People may question why those two make the French pantry list. France is a small country that shares its borders with many other nations, and ingredients are not so good at staying within their confines. The culinary borders between Italy and Provence, Spain and the Basque region, Germany and Alsace, are blurs.
Not a day passes that my family does not use copious amounts of Dijon mustard in our cooking. In fact, we use so much that I am surprised that my favorite mustard company, Fallot, does not wonder why sales plummet when we are on vacation.
Fallot is the last independent, family-run mustard mill in Burgundy and makes the best mustard in France. I use their traditional Dijon and coarse-ground mustards; both are fantastic in sauces and salad dressings and as an accompaniment to charcuterie.
One of my favorites, as well as being among the most unique mustards around, is Moutarde Violette de Brive, which horribly translates online as “purple condiment.” It is a purple mustard made with the grape must leftover from winemaking. I have savored countless grilled steaks dressed in nothing more than a few flakes of sea salt and a big spoonful of violette mustard.
Staple Fruit and Vegetables
The French are one of the thriftiest nations in the world. Absolutely nothing goes to waste. Dried orange zest is used to liven up a daube of beef or bouillabaisse with a bright citrusy undertone.
Every time I eat an orange, I trim the peel off and hang it in a dry, well-ventilated spot for about 5 days. I collect all of my dried peels and store them in a jar in my pantry for future use.
I like to stock plenty of lemons. They make a welcome addition to simple roast chicken or when squeezed over a fresh piece of fish. I like lemon zest grated over my asparagus and even sautéed mushrooms. The use of citrus is vital in balancing flavor and mouthfeel.
No self-respecting French kitchen would be considered complete without shallots, garlic, onions, celery, carrots, and leeks. If you can find the famous French fingerling potato known as a Ratte at your farmers’ market, then include it, too. They are incredibly delicious cooked in a spoonful of golden duck fat and crisped with slivers of garlic and chopped fresh thyme.
A lot of people have asked me what essential kitchen tools and seasonings I recommend. I prepared a list of my fundamental kitchen tools every serious home cook should have.
Essential Kitchen Tools: https://kit.co/cheffrancois/kitchen-essentials-must-have-tools
Essential Kitchen Spices: https://kit.co/cheffrancois/kitchen-essentials-must-have-kitchen-seasonings
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This story came from my cookbook French Cooking For Beginner’s which is available online at Amazon. 75+ Classic Recipes to Help You Cook Like a Parisian.